In Bold Move Toward Free Online Fantasy Gaming, Turbine Prepares to Throw Open the Gates to Dungeons & Dragons

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the evolution of the 15-year-old, 300-employee company—which is funded by Highland Capital Partners, Polaris Venture Partners, and Time Warner Investments, among other backers—into a business that’s much more focused on marketing strategies than it has been in the past, Crowley says.

Which may be precisely what the company’s board intended when it brought in Crowley two years ago, replacing former CEO Jeff Anderson. A longtime game industry insider, Anderson turned Turbine from a struggling developer with just one game, Asheron’s Call, into a major publisher with online rights to what are arguably the world’s two leading fantasy properties—-Dungeons & Dragons and the Tolkien world. Crowley, by contrast, is a former mobile-industry executive who was chief operating officer at Boston-based mobile marketing company m-Qube until its acquisition by Verisign in 2006 for $250 million; he then spent time at Highland as an entrepreneur in residence. The move to make him Anderson’s replacement was “one of many that Turbine has recently made to invest in new talent that will drive the next wave of the company’s growth,” the company said in a press release at the time.

The exact story around the 2007 shakeup is a bit murky. Anderson, who is now CEO at Foxborough, MA-based Quick Hit Games, has told me in past conversations that he became convinced while still at Turbine that World of Warcraft had sucked much of the oxygen out of the gaming world, and that the remaining MMORPG companies would have to shift to a free-to-play, less software-intensive model to compete. He thought Turbine should go in that direction, but he came to doubt whether the company was capable of making the transition. (Ironically, Quick Hit will launch its own free-to-play online game, a football simulation, on September 9—the same day as Eberron Unlimited.)

Dungeons & Dragons OnlineCrowley, however, says a free-to-play option has been on the agenda from the day he arrived—it just took a while to get all the pieces in place. “It’s a very compelling model and one that we think has a lot of legs for Turbine,” he says. “But it is also is not relevant to every specific property…and there is a need to have a certain organizational maturity to allow these things to drive forward and flourish. I think we’ve injected a lot of the market discipline that will allow these models to be successful.”

What’s clear is that Turbine sees the launch of Eberron Unlimited as one element in an overarching plan to become what chief marketing officer Jan Horsfall calls an “entertainment-as-a-service” company. “It’s worth noting that we don’t have a senior executive in this company, outside of Chris Dyl [the chief technology officer], who has been here more than two years,” Horsfall told me. “Which is somewhat indicative of the category. You could say we were a development shop at the early stages of our life cycle, we weren’t an entertainment-as-a-service company. And that is really what has changed here. We are putting a senior management group against this business to take advantage of the opportunities that we think are there.”

Those opportunities go well beyond free-to-play online games. Crowley summarizes his big strategy for Turbine this way: “monetize everywhere, engage anywhere, play on anything, operate globally.”

On the revenue side, that means combining microtransactions, subscriptions, and even advertising. On the engagement front, it means creating what Crowley calls a “virtuous circle” between game play and the social networking activities players pursue in their outside lives—for example, by … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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18 responses to “In Bold Move Toward Free Online Fantasy Gaming, Turbine Prepares to Throw Open the Gates to Dungeons & Dragons”

  1. Alex Fairy says:

    love me love you we!!!!!!

  2. Miramon says:

    The game has very few subscribers anyway. Since DDO was not profitable as it was, the change is not all that bold, not much of a gamble: it’s just an attempt to recoup losses with a different revenue model.

    It’s very rare for any MMO to recover from a bad launch. Anarchy Online is perhaps the only such game to do so, and its recovery was very modest — the fact you’ve probably never heard of it attests to that….

    As an aside, LOTRO and DDO are not the next-most-popular MMOs after World of Warcraft, though this assertion is difficult to prove or disprove, as Turbine never releases subscription figures. However, you can make some rough estimates based on named game world deployment. LOTRO might possibly be one of the higher ranked American-owned-and-operated MMOs after WoW, but I would be surprised if it had 250,000 active subscribers, and there are many other MMOs worldwide with more subscribers than that.

  3. Gelmir says:

    Whoa!

    What about Guild Wars?

    It has been free online since 2005

    http://www.guildwars.com

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guild_Wars

    The games in the Guild Wars series were critically well received[4][5][6][7] and won many editor’s choice awards, as well as awards such as Best Value, Best Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG), and Best Game.[8] Guild Wars was noted for being one of the few commercially developed games in the MMORPG genre to offer online play without subscription fees,[9] its instanced approach to MMORPG play,[10] and the quality of the graphics and play for computers with low specifications.[11] In April 2009, NCSoft announced that 6 million units of games in the Guild Wars series had been sold.[12]

  4. Sthims says:

    It’s amazing to see how many similarities there are in Turbine’s new positioning to the statements and stories around Jeff Anderson’s new venture at Quick Hit. Seems like Anderson had the right vision all along..

    will be interesting to see what comes of this model in the MMORPG world…

  5. Kalanth says:

    It is not just that it is free to play, like Guild Wars. Instead it is that you don’t even have to buy the game itself and simply download the game and play without every paying a cent. That is something no game has done, not even Guild Wars which cost $50 at time of release.

    DDO is a very solid MMO with an outstanding playstyle that is unmatched in other MMO’s. Only recently are some of these things being copied, and even then there is no equal. Anyone that has given DDO a chance would tell you that.

  6. igrat says:

    (quote)Miramon 8/4/09 1:05 pm
    It’s very rare for any MMO to recover from a bad launch. Anarchy Online is perhaps the only such game to do so, and its recovery was very modest — the fact you’ve probably never heard of it attests to that….

    (above is a quote)

    EVE Online had a dismal first year or two. There’s a reason why CCP is often referenced in relation to success and that’s ‘cs of a focus upon their product. Did you know they were unable to pay their staff at one point in time?

  7. Miramn says:

    @igrat:

    Good point, Eve Online is another example. I’m not sure how successful they really are at this late date, but they certainly improved after launch, and I’m sure they have more users than DDO, if not LOTRO. I see they claim around 300K, which may perhaps be more than any American MMO except WoW.

    Did CCP suffer from the Icelandic economic collapse?

    Edit: Bah, typoed my handle.

  8. Alex says:

    So does that mean the 3.5 year old Europe DDO characters will all be deleted like their Japanese counterparts were?

    Would be nice if Turbine could clear up that tiny little issue for us.

    P.S. Eve had its money spread about the globe and didn’t loose a ton of it to the collapse of its local banks. They made a press release to tell their players not to worry, they weren’t going to suddenly vanish. Nice how some companies can take the time out to relieve their customers fears.